Jon Carroll has a good column defending reality TV today. As usual, he’s more right than wrong, but I have a tiny bone to pick on his “reality TV is unpredictable” contention. His example was sound, but my observation is somewhat different. What puzzles me about R-TV is how quickly it’s fallen into a predictable framework — two teams, a challenge, cutaways to cast members trashing each other, the editing-based fakeout of who’s going down, the last-act no-it’s-someone-else, the climactic tribal council vote-off, the parting shot.
Mark Burnett, what hath you wrought?
I watched a few “Survivors,” got bored, watched another, found it was still pretty Kabuki — there’s the Bitch, the Earth Mom, the Rebel, the Drill Sergeant, the Hottie, the Grandparent, etc. Bor-ing. So then I tuned into something new, “Wickedly Perfect,” touted as a quest to find America’s next “style maven,” I guess because its current maven is in the slam. How this maven will be mave-ified is still a mystery, but I understand a book deal is involved. The point is the TV time, anyway, and so far, I’m not disappointed. The style mavens are working harder for their 15 minutes than any “Survivor” castaway, most of whom lie around the beach while the Grandparent and the Drill Sergeant do all the wood-gathering and grouse about kids these days.
Anyone who’s ever hosted a dinner party for eight knows how hard it is, and these folks are usually asked to do that or its equivalent, plus an “individual project” and some other busy work on every episode. The individual projects I’ve seen are interesting, the sort of crafty stuff that people who do it would have you believe is just some li’l thing they whipped up when they were bored the other afternoon. Last week’s was a wreath made of fruit, and half the fun was hearing the way Joan Lunden laid out the task: “You will be required to make a wreath out of fruit,” she said, with the same approximate gravity the CIA guy uses on Martin Sheen when he’s telling him to terminate Col. Kurtz with extreme prejudice.
The fruit wreath was part of an overall challenge that involved running a B&B for a night, with the judges as the high-strung, demanding guests, showing up with their own sheets or demanding a bourbon and ginger ale at midnight or finding fault with their prosciutto-wrapped melon balls or whatever. At one point one of the judges had to show a contestant how to poach an egg, and you knew she was toast, but her teammate just sat there and beamed, because she TOLD her you needed to put vinegar in the water, and that snooty leave-me-alone-I-can-handle-it Margo said she NEVER uses vinegar, and just let her do it her way, OK?
I mean, why take people to a tropical island and make them eat bugs and inadequately cooked fish and pretend they’re starving? This is a framework that truly fits the backstabbing narrative.
The vote-offs are done in “the rock garden” of whatever Connecticut house they’re staying in. Everybody wears dramatic shawls. Instead of getting their torches snuffed, they have to walk off across the manicured lawn out of the spotlight, growing dimmer and dimmer, until they get to stand before the microphone one last time and say, “Just try to get along without my chocolate mousse, you pretenders! I’m walking off with my head high!”
Oh, my. Now this is television.